How to walk away from annoying in-game monetization

Colin Campbell, Wednesday, October 25th, 2023 9:07 am

Inkbound is an overhead-view roguelike from San Francisco-based developer-publisher Shiny Shoe. Launched in May, it’s been positively received and has enjoyed commercial success. Recently, Shiny Shoe announced a significant change to the game. The company will no longer be offering in-game sales of items or passes.

Previously, players could buy cosmetic items in the game using virtual currency that was either earned, or bought with real money. Virtual currency was sold as part of Leveling Passes, which are essentially battle passes without cut-off dates, offered to players for purchase at points when they hit certain achievements. The packs include opportunities to earn exclusive items through gameplay.

However, despite Shiny Shoe’s attempts to mitigate the annoyance of in-game monetization, players expressed their frustration with the system. Negative Steam reviews and players seeking refunds often cited monetization features. The company listened.

Later this week, Shiny Shoe will drop a new update, in which the leveling passes are only available, separate from the game, via DLC-style Supporter Packs sold on Steam. The cosmetics shop is now called a “vault” where players can buy items, but only with earned, virtual currency. Some items from the vault are given away free as in-game rewards. Players who have spent real money in the past will be offered extra bonus rewards.

Other games use similar optional systems, but Shiny Shoe is interesting, because the company has opted to favor this system, specifically, over a previous (and unpopular) in-game system of monetization.

GameDaily spoke to Shiny Shoe’s founder and CEO Mark Cooke to find out more about the change, and how it reflects on in-game monetization design more broadly.

(This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

GameDaily: Why have you decided to stop in-game transactions in Inkbound?

Mark Cooke: As a development team, we enjoy working on our titles long term. After the game comes out, we like to communicate directly with our players, and the general community of people who are interested in our games, to develop additional content to grow our games.

We’re looking for a way to sustain investment, by finding a way for people who are very engaged with our games to spend additional money, so that we can support the salaries of the development team working on the title.

Our prior game, Monster Train, did not have that. It did great and we’re super proud of that game. But we would have liked to have kept doing more updates.

For that reason, we tried putting a variety of in-game monetization features into Inkbound. We did that in a way that we felt was very player friendly. It was completely optional. It was completely cosmetic with no gameplay-affecting options whatsoever. We were very generous with what players got for their money.

But clearly, that was not received well by a significant amount of people. We’re very focused on player feedback. That was the basis for us making a decision to review our plans in this area.

GameDaily: Do you believe that the pushback from players was based on your particular in-game monetization implementation, or just the fact that it existed at all?

Mark Cooke: My personal opinion is that it was primarily based on the fact that it existed at all. There isn’t a lot of nuance about this type of functionality, which is fair enough, because there have been some pretty bad implementations out there that have not been very player-friendly.

Before we released the game, we spent a lot of time internally talking about how to make this really something that puts the player first by making it generous, valuable and comfortable.

But in the end it didn’t matter. There is clearly a growing sentiment amongst players that this isn’t something they want. They communicated their views to us – through Steam reviews, Steam refund data and other channels – and we listened. I respect our players’ opinions.

We want the conversations about our games to focus on the gameplay, and not on monetization. As a team, we were starting to feel fatigued by the conversation. I’m looking forward to conversations about whether the game is good, and if its features are fun.

GameDaily: When you’re looking at your spreadsheets now, presumably you’re aiming to cover the shortfall from loss of in-game revenue with sales of the DLC packs, and an uptick in popularity for the game overall?

Mark Cooke: Yes, that describes it exactly. We have a certain percentage of revenue that we are currently earning from in-game monetization that’s now going to zero. However, we have seen an increase in interest because of the goodwill associated with the announcement of this change. And the Supporter Pack DLCs will theoretically replace some of that revenue.

I can’t honestly say if it’s going to be better or worse financially but I do believe it’s going to be a net positive impact for us. I’m not overly concerned about the loss of revenue from in-game monetization. We’re going to find out soon I guess.

Overall, we’re totally committed to this change and happy to do it and just glad to see that player response has been predominantly positive.

GameDaily: You mentioned that pushback against in-game monetization is a demonstrable industry trend. Do you see other companies following your lead in setting it aside?

Mark Cooke: It’s clear that there has been negative player sentiment around the implementation of a variety of in-game monetization strategies across a wide variety of titles. It feels like that has heated up in the past year or two. We probably would not have put those features in if we’d begun development more recently than 2021.

In my opinion the pushback is due to fatigue and really bad implementations that have come out in the past few years. Players feel burned and they sour on it. When they see it, they assume it’s going to be bad again.

That said, I can’t say if big companies or free-to-play game companies are going to walk away from this kind of monetization. What’s important to me is that our players are happy.

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell has been reporting on the gaming industry for more than three decades, including for Polygon, IGN, The Guardian, Next Generation, and The Economist. © 2024 | All Rights Reserved.